By BORIS KONTIĆ
It started all of a sudden. One calm afternoon while I was thinking what to do after work, I got a phone call that would change my life drastically.
Ok – not to exaggerate – a call that would send me off to Bulgaria from Austria for the next few years.
Not long after that, I found myself in the airport in Sofia.
(One interesting observation: Bulgarians often applaud upon landing, especially if you fly with Bulgaria Air.)
“Need a taxi?” a short, dark-haired taxi driver with a fake smile asked me. “Why not?” I thought to myself and that’s where my adventure began.
Of course, the taxi was fake and I learned a lesson which, more or less, all foreigners learn – at the airport, you should go straight to the official taxi counter and say, “No, thank you” with a smile to the people offering you a taxi at the terminal.
Those people are fraudsters, and a ride from airport to the city centre, with the pleasure of listening to the newest folk hits, will cost you as much as it would in Vienna – for half the distance.
Your head says “yes,” but your lips say, “no.”
I spent my first year in Bulgaria in the capital, Sofia. A city with a pretty name but decades of negligence have left marks on its face.
In Sofia, the first thing you need to learn is to walk, because sidewalks on the main streets in the centre, like Dondukov Boulevard, are so bumpy you’d better pay close attention where you step all the time.
The city is lined with opulent buildings dating from the end of the 19th century and beginning of 20th century on one side, and communist architecture from the second part of the 20th century on the other.
Even though in recent years much has been done to give Sofia a different face – a more modern one – more effort is needed and most construction is being done without a proper plan, much like in other Eastern European cities.
Luckily, Sofia isn’t only its buildings and streets.
There are numerous restaurants and bars and small, hidden, narrow, cobbled streets that look like they’re stuck in some of the previous centuries. There are people who, though among the poorest in Europe, didn’t lose their sense of humor and are going through life with a brave face.
They should, though, learn to nod properly as a sign of approval or disapproval, because in Bulgaria they shake their heads up and down for “no” and left to right for “yes.”
In the beginning, when you are asked a question, that will probably lead to some comical situations, because they will interpret your “no” as a “yes.” And if, besides shaking your head, you utter the word “no,” you’ll have them completely confused, because your head is showing a “yes” and your mouth is saying “no.”
There is, however, a solution for that:
You will either, like some of my friends, adopt local customs – which are at odds with customs of the rest of the Old Continent. Or, you’ll just stop gesticulating altogether while you speak, like I did.
A culinary mystery
Bulgarians add a green spice, čubrica, to most of their dishes, especially ones with meat, which is an integral part of their cuisine. What has confused me throughout the years is that Bulgarians, at least the ones I know, are crazy about Serbian barbecue, which is identical to Bulgarian barbecue, only without čubrica.
On the other hand, they insist čubrica is the über spice and barbecue without it is like a summer without sun.
OK, I am exaggerating a bit again, but you get the point. I think this is like the nodding, yes is no and no is yes.
You’re confused? I am too.
After one year, I said farewell to Sofia and its crowded streets and headed in the direction of the Bulgarian-Turkish border to Svilengrad, the Bulgarian Las Vegas. The architectural shock I experienced arriving in Sofia was nothing compared to the one I had at the Eastern border, and the fact that the summer of 2012 was one of the driest in history didn’t help at all.
There were deserted streets, unbearable heat and only a donkey here and there standing in the scorching sun.
In some countries of former Yugoslavia, you see horse drawn carriages; in Bulgaria you see donkey-drawn ones.
Svilengrad, a town with about 15,000 inhabitants, has about a dozen casinos and as many hotels with old and overused mattresses, where on weekends it is impossible to find a free bed.
Contributing to that is the vicinity of Istanbul and the fact that casinos have been banned in Turkey since 1998.
On the positive side, the region has numerous wine cellars with top-quality Bulgarian wine you need to try if you’re a wine lover.
Many of the wineries offer packages with overnight stays included so you can drink yourself into oblivion at a cheap price, unless you’re not a wine lover, in which case you’re better off eating watermelons that are, I guarantee, some of the best you’ll have in your life. I am not even going to try to describe them in words. You just have to try them.
I got used to the absence of traffic and the laid-back atmosphere of a small town pretty quickly, so I didn’t quite mind the lack of activities, not counting all the bars and restaurants.
I guess my colleagues and I had enough work to keep us occupied, so we didn’t pay much attention to our surroundings. We worked in an Austrian company that was building a railway line between Svilengrad and Harmanli, which is 30 kilometers away.
For an entertaining night out or for fitness, we’d drive 70 kilometers one way to Haskovo, which is a rare jewel in Eastern Bulgaria, a town with green alleys and clean (not bumpy) streets that made me feel like I had teleported to another country every time. That fact made the 150-kilometer drive worth it.
While working in Svilengrad, I traveled to Plovdiv almost every week. Plovidv is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and in the world, dating from the 6th millennium BC.
Plovdiv is a city you should explore if you’re in Bulgaria, directly after seeing Sofia. The old town of Plovdiv with the ancient Roman forum is something you must see, together with old cobbled streets and houses frozen in the 18th century.
Getting from point A to point B by car in Bulgaria doesn’t require only a driver’s license. You’ll also need abundant patience, because Bulgarians are very inconsiderate drivers with little-to-no respect toward pedestrians.
The worst among them are taxi drivers who, after some time, I started to ignore completely on the streets. This is something I probably shouldn’t recommend, but it was part of my defense mechanism to save my nerves during traffic jams.
Prepare to be overtaken in U-turns and over solid lines and not to be allowed to enter into traffic. When you let someone enter into traffic, they will thank you by turning on their blinkers like you did them a grand favor and not a simple, normal gesture in traffic.
Just try it
After more than five years in Bulgaria, it is time for me to move on, at least temporarily, and look for challenges elsewhere. Even though this story is mostly critical, the purpose is to point out some peculiarities of Bulgaria you might not notice if you’re there only for a short while.
Bulgaria will give you as much as you let it give you. If you like nightlife and fun at the seaside, this is the place for you. If you like mountains, either for mountaineering or skiing, you’re in the right place. If you like history, Bulgaria will captivate and charm you. If you’re still pondering whether or not to visit Bulgaria, you should take the leap and come. Sofia is extremely well connected with numerous European cities through Wizz Air and Ryanair.
Just remember “no” means “yes” and you’ll be fine. And if you find yourself agreeing that čubrica is the über spice; if the weird nodding doesn’t freak you out; and if breaking rules in traffic comes to you naturally, you may ask your parents how much they paid for you to the child smuggler from Bulgaria!